By Marya Dantzer
“This is fabulous—a huge step forward,” declared Planning Board member Sandra Hackman. Other members of the board echoed her praise for the draft of a proposed bylaw revision that would restructure zoning requirements for Industrial Mixed Use (IMU) development in existing industrial and commercial districts in town. Planning Director Glenn Garber had submitted the draft for preliminary discussion at the Board’s July 22 meeting.
Since publication of the town’s Comprehensive Plan last December, the Planning Board has engaged in several wide-ranging discussions about how to prioritize and implement objectives of the Plan that lie within the board’s purview. The draft IMU regulations represent a step toward one such endeavor: a thoroughgoing review of zoning bylaws, in order to align their controls and incentives with contemporary norms, while protecting the community’s character.
Industrial and commercial zoning is particularly important because properties of this type generate significant revenue—approximately 30% of town receipts in fiscal 2013. This contribution represents an uptick since last year, but it varies in concert with the economic climate, and despite the uptick, has declined since the 2008 recession as the assessed value of business properties fell, even as the value of residential properties has risen.
Town management’s recent hiring of Economic Development Coordinator Alyssa Sandoval bespeaks the importance of revitalizing the town’s business profile. And in 2012, Bedford, Burlington, Billerica, Chelmsford, and Lowell established the Middlesex 3 Coalition, a public/private nonprofit partnership to promote economic development in the area (see the Bedford Citizen’s coverage of that body’s kickoff, (https://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2012/10/08/middlesex-3-coalition-seeks-development-of-regional-identity/).
Meanwhile, Planning Department research is revealing that Bedford’s existing commercial zoning regulations reflect yesteryear’s business needs. As a result, Bedford has become less competitive with comparable communities in the business development marketplace—that is, the town has become less inviting to the kind of business development that could increase the share of revenue borne by commercial taxpayers. This circumstance is the impetus behind the zoning revisions.
IMU developments are those that combine multiple business usages in a single parcel; for example, the array of businesses and restaurants found at 213 Burlington Road. Current IMU zoning in Bedford includes residential development as a permitted component, a configuration that has not proven successful, as seen in the failure of the Village at Taylor Pond to attract commercial tenants. Planning research also shows that IMUs that include housing are more desirable in urban areas than in a suburban setting. As Planning Director Glenn Garber said in a telephone interview, the current IMU “hasn’t produced the integrated live\work environments that people envisioned.”
Moreover, because as the Comprehensive Plan observes, Bedford is considered “built out,” “a lot of people object to valuable and dwindling office land being used for residential purposes,” Garber said, because of the revenue differential between residential and commercial tax rates.
As a result, a revised IMU bylaw will remove housing from the list of permitted uses. Doing so, however, still leaves in place a list of other possibilities, among them offices, light manufacturing, research, services, institutions and foundations, medical and fitness facilities, cultural and retail facilities, and (table-service) restaurants.
The objective of specifying permitted uses in this way—and of revising technical requirements, such as building height, floor area, parking and pedestrian circulation, as well as environmental and aesthetic protections designed to minimize ecological disruption and contribute to the ambience of the town—is to provide “an incentive to developers regarding the preferred logical combination of uses,” Garber added.
For example, the new IMU draft discussed at the meeting specifies that restaurants must have table service, thus excluding fast-food establishments; and requires that developments avoid “large concentrations of at-grade parking lots in favor of smaller, multiple lots” separated by “landscape and pedestrian features” to facilitate storm drainage, promote pedestrian circulation, and enhance visual appeal. In keeping with these purposes, the zoning revision also adjusts technical requirements, such as for setbacks and floor-to-area ratio, or FAR (the square footage of a building divided by the square footage of its lot, which serves as a measure of development density)—Bedford’s FAR is low in comparison with that of comparable towns. In the telephone interview, Garber also noted that the proposed IMU revision “much better defines, clarifies, and invigorates” Bedford’s attractiveness to developers. The proposal also provides greater flexibility for developers, but at the Planning Board’s discretion on a case-by-case review.
Praising the draft, Planning Board member Shawn Hanegan observed that “it shows a vision.” Garber characterized revamping the IMU rules as providing the town with “an economic development tool.” In that vein, he said that Sandoval plans to meet in September with “some larger corporate users” to discuss economic development issues. “The timing couldn’t be better,” he commented, since it will enable the Planning Board to consider the needs and desires of potential developers as it fine-tunes the IMU plan for projected presentation at the November special Town Meeting.